A sense of decency in politics

George Street Playhouse presents Joe DiPietro’s ‘Conscience’

4 minute read
Senator McCarthy and Margaret Chase Smith, the woman who rebuked him first: Lee Sellars and Harriet Harris in George Street’s ‘Conscience.’ (Photo by T. Charles Erickson.)
Senator McCarthy and Margaret Chase Smith, the woman who rebuked him first: Lee Sellars and Harriet Harris in George Street’s ‘Conscience.’ (Photo by T. Charles Erickson.)

In times of political turmoil, we seek comfort in examples of righteousness. That explains Conscience, a snappy slice of history receiving its world premiere at George Street Playhouse. Playwright Joe DiPietro explores a familiar chapter of America’s past from a largely unconsidered angle, reviving the memory of a pioneering woman politician.

“Have you no decency?”

The dubious legacy of Senator Joseph McCarthy—who, until recent years, might have been considered the country’s most dangerous demagogue—is well known. So, too, is the famous rebuke he received, from lawyer Joseph N. Welch, during his crusade to rid the US government of alleged communist sympathizers: “Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency.”

That soundbite is seared into the country’s collective consciousness. But DiPietro turns his attention to a woman who rebuked McCarthy long before his reign of terror began: Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a fellow Republican and the first woman elected in her own right to both the House of Representatives and the US Senate. In 1950, as a freshman legislator, Smith delivered her “Declaration of Conscience” on the Senate floor, warning the public against “the Four Horseman of Calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”

Smith and McCarthy

Conscience considers the relationship between Smith (Harriet Harris) and McCarthy (Lee Sellars) from their jovial introduction in the early 1950s to his political downfall and premature death in 1957. If the best revenge is living well, Smith certainly won that round: She was the first woman to run a viable presidential campaign in 1964; remained a senator until 1972; and died in 1995, at 97, a hero in her home state of Maine.

The drama presents Smith as both a pragmatist and a person of great moral fortitude. She is initially drawn to McCarthy’s outsize personality and the potential he holds for political advancement—he suggests she might be an ideal running mate for Eisenhower in ‘52—but in the wake of his infamous Wheeling Speech, she cannot abide the risk his tactics pose to the American way of life.

Wish fulfillment?

You can imagine why a dramatist, and an audience, would be attracted to this story. Given the current climate in Washington, the idea of an elected official speaking out in service of the country—especially against a member of her own party—comes close to wish fulfillment. Conscience reminds its viewer that courage comes with a healthy dose of personal risk. It also offers a compelling portrait of Smith’s unwavering convictions, even after her initial speech puts her career, and her life, in peril.

If anything, I came away wanting to know more about her. Personal details emerge here and there, but as a complete work, it ties Smith’s legacy to McCarthy. Perhaps a different play would investigate more fully her declaration as a catalyst for things to come, rather than an end in itself.

Smith declares the Four Horsemen of Calumny: Harriet Harris in George Street’s ‘Conscience.’ (Photo by T. Charles Erickson.)
Smith declares the Four Horsemen of Calumny: Harriet Harris in George Street’s ‘Conscience.’ (Photo by T. Charles Erickson.)

One woman’s voice

But the play at hand, under David Saint’s direction, offers much to relish. The highlight is Harris’s fine portrait of Smith, alternately brash and sympathetic, a fortress of strength and resolutely human. Her reedy accent sometimes sounds close to a Katharine Hepburn impersonation, but her overall performance contains no caricature.

At various moments, Harris’s Smith spars deliciously with Cathryn Wake’s Jean Kerr—McCarthy’s secretary, a true believer in his cause who would eventually become his wife. Their electric interactions are unfortunately not matched by Sellars’s one-note performance as McCarthy, all red-faced bluster. A fourth character, an advisor to Smith with an exploitable personal history (played by Mark Junek), is underdeveloped.

James Youmans’s gunmetal gray set—alternately suggesting a Senate chamber and a modern-day cable-news studio—is the most effective I’ve seen since George Street moved into its new digs at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center last fall. Joe Saint’s lighting is vivid and complementary, and Brian Hemesath’s costumes nicely evoke the period. Original music by Scott Killian is occasionally intrusive, like underscoring for a television procedural.

Like many contemporary playwrights, DiPietro has a tendency to use his characters as de facto narrators, explaining the particulars of a scene we’re about to watch. This could be done away with. Conscience succeeds when its heroine opens her mouth and makes her voice heard. More than half a century after her declaration, Margaret Chase Smith still has a lot to say.

What, When, Where

Conscience. By Joe DiPietro. Directed by David Saint. George Street Playhouse. Through March 29, at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 11 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, NJ. (732) 246-7717 or georgestreetplayhouse.org.

George Street Playhouse offers barrier-free access for patrons of all abilities. Assistive-listening devices and large-print/Braille programs are available at all performances. There will be an audio-described performance of Conscience on March 19 at 8pm and an open-captioned performance on March 21 at 2pm.

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